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Law firm offices are dead

The end of the law office is nigh due to changing work patterns, says Chrissie Lightfoot.

Many law offices will become virtual nmedia

What will work look like in 2025? Predicting the future is a risky business, so it’s something we lawyers ought to feel comfortable with - risk. We know all about risk, right? But as technology continues to develop and various trends, demographic shifts, and other factors create change, it is fair to say that we are able to get a better handle on how all of our careers, including law, will change in the future. In May this year, Gwen Moran wrote a piece in Fast Company looking at what work will look like in 2025. Here are three relevant snapshots of the many predictions from ‘the experts’:

Tech will become the great equalizer (but robots might take our jobs).

It’s not a stretch to predict that technology will be embedded into just about everything we do. "[Experts] especially expect significant evolution in the delivery of goods and services thanks to advances in interconnectivity, transportation systems and data aggregation and analytics," says Janna Quitney Anderson, communication professor at Elon University, director of its Imagining The Internet Center, and the co-author of the Pew Center research report, AI, Robotics And The Future Of Jobs. 

Seismic shift in jobs

The same interconnected technology that will change how goods and services are delivered will "hollow out" a number of skilled jobs. Who wins then? you may ask. Answer: “Specialists, the creative class, and people who have jobs that require emotional intelligence like salespeople, coaches, customer-service specialists, and people who create everything from writing and art to new products, platforms and services,” Brynjolfsson says.

Increased flexibility—sort of

Many believe we’ll see a greater acceptance of blended work and personal time. Schmit says “millennials already accept that, but will also further drive flexibility in the workplace and that the baby-boomers who created somewhat rigid work environments are also seeking greater flexibility to work where they wish and to be able to find ways to balance work and family.” 

Let’s go a little deeper now. If we take on board what Millenials want from work and what work will look like in the near future, what do we need to consider?

By 2023 the office is dead

Last month Antony Slumbers (a property expert from a tech perspective) shared four areas (amongst others) that successful companies need to consider in his article Real estate developers, investors and technology; staying competitive in a changing world:

1) “First off, the four tech megatrends (Mobile, Cloud, Connectivity and Internet of Things) mean that all companies need to rethink their digital infrastructure. 

2) Secondly, if you are looking to innovate, and who isn’t, then you need to place your innovators on the edge of your company structure. IT departments will cease to exist; rather the availability of technological skills will be embedded within every member of staff and in operations across the board. 

3) Thirdly, you do have plans for Smart Working don’t you? Being end to end digital, and rethinking why you do what you do, and considering whether there is a better way. In the UK large areas of government are a long way down the Smart Working road and have transformed how they work, where they work, the costs of how they operate and the property requirements that all this entails. Their journey can tell us in the private sector a lot about how work and the workplace will change. 

4) And finally, in property we are set to rethink who the customer is. At the personal level. People are queuing up to pay a mighty premium for a space to work.”

Property vs legal 

As in the property world, so in the legal world. As co-working, Smart Working and other non traditional ways of occupying space take hold, Antony suggests we are entering a world where people “will not be chained to a single desk five days a week; they will use this or that space, in this or that location, on a random basis.”  It is estimated that 40 per cent of the workforce will be contingent by 2020 (freelancers, contractors or part time; note some lawyers already work this way), which begs the question “where are these people (lawyers) going to work?” Mr Antony believes that “all over the place is the answer, and ‘Office as a Service’ is what they will require.” Consider how virtual law firms operate and produce legal work now and in the future, for example, Keystone Law, Obelisk, Gunnercooke and Halebury. I predict that we will see a rise in the growth of firms such as these that are agile enough to allow lawyers a work-life balance too.

Predictions

Antony Slumbers may appear very brave and bold in his predictions when he says “I’d like to suggest to you that, by 2023, “The Office is Dead”. But he doesn’t mean there will be no more offices. Nor does he mean that what is coming applies to every company and/or law firm in every (law) office. A large chunk of the market will stay pretty much as it is. “But an even bigger chunk will not”, he insists.

Antony’s contention is that the way we work and where we work is no longer about a place to work or a roof over our head. Instead, because of technological developments, and the behavioural changes that will inevitably follow in their wake, the point is the real estate industry is changing, just like law law land. Antony comments: 

“Office desks are occupied roughly 40-50 per cent of the time. And according to the Leesman Workplace Efficiency survey some 47 per cent of people say their offices aren’t conducive to productivity and 77 per cent of employees claim to be poorly or partially engaged at work. Obviously this is not only a real estate issue but it does rather reinforce the thought that things as they are, are not that great.”

Less space per person

The City of London produced a report, which they launched at MIPIM in March 2015 showing that, in the City of London firms are almost guaranteed to be using less space per person in the future, regardless of how technologically savvy they are. As Antony puts it: “This is the age of ‘spaceless growth’.” So, why do, or will, we need offices? What is the point of the law office? I will share with you an entertaining reprise by Anthony of a blog post by Seth Godin about the point of the office:

“That’s where the machines are. NOPE – the machines we need are with us all the time.

That’s where the items I need to work on are. NOPE – they are in the Cloud.

The boss needs to keep tabs on my productivity. NOPE – you’ll either have no boss or that type of boss will be history.

There are important meetings to go to. YES – but I seldom need an office to connect with someone.

It’s a source of energy. YES – but in this new super connected world there is plenty of energy elsewhere.

The people I collaborate with all day are there. NOPE – The people you collaborate with are all over the place.

I need someplace to go. Well perhaps you do… But clearly you do not need the office for what it is used for now. Or rather, by 2023 you almost certainly won’t. The purpose of the office is set to change, quite dramatically.”

The office desk has gone

If more than 50 per cent  of Generation Y employees believe they would be more productive if allowed to work more flexibly, and 1 in 5 workers across the EU now spend at least ten hours a week working remotely (according to workplace insights), it is already clear where this is heading:  “The big and bitter pill for many to swallow, is that the desk is no longer the epicenter of productivity. Instead, the highest workplace effectiveness results are achieved through infrastructures and systems that facilitate collaboration, sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas, done in a variety of different settings, most all of them away from a designated desk.” (The Leesman Review). So YES, arguably, the law firm office, as we know it, and how ‘the office’ works in so many companies, is dead, or soon will be.

The alternative?

So where do we go? What should we consider as the alternative? It’s obvious, isn’t it? Improving what we’ve done before is not the answer. Because we don’t need (law firm) real estate anymore for what we used to need real estate for. We need something new. But what?

Chrissie Lightfoot is author of Tomorrow’s Naked Lawyer: NewTech, NewHuman, NewLaw – How to be successful 2015 to 2045. (published Nov 2014 ), and its prequel bestseller The Naked Lawyer: RIP to XXX – How to Market, Brand and Sell You! (Nov 2010). You can pick up her latest book today by emailing publishing@ark-group.com or call +44(0) 207 566 5792.

Posted by:

Chrissie
Lightfoot

02 October 2015

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